A Lack of Backpack你的背包
Big backpacks are for the long haul, which means a life compressed and departmentalised; all the daily necessities are pared down, or in some cases, simply created in smaller sizes. Backpacks, then, seem to be the obvious choice for those far away from ‘home’; It’s home in a bag. But for some reason, this is not the case for most Chinese travelers.
“Please keep clean.” When I saw this sign on the overnight bus to Bangkok, I couldn’t help thinking that it was aimed at those of us schlepping our backpacks through the cramped aisle. Backpackers tend to carry the a lot of the road along with them, and this particular bus was no exception. Grimy from countless bus rides, cheap hostels, shoddy showers and late nights, “Please keep clean” is probably a fair enough request.
Anyway, that bus ride marked a new kind of exposure to backpackers for me, because every single passenger was a backpacker in some form or another. Some had worn backpacks, some had new ones with hooks and shoes and pans dangling off of the back, some had beads and flowers tied onto the zippers, flip-flops tethered to the side and a beach ball peeking out of the top. Some travelers had their entire lives in those bags, and some were just putting things into the bag for lack of better luggage. Many had two backpacks: a big one for the main articles, and then a smaller one worn on the front of the body, making most maneuvers look like something out of a Charlie Chaplin movie. My own backpack was one I borrowed from a friend, complete with straps, buckles and more compartments than you could shake a stick at. And so, like waddling ducks, we joined this rag-tag collection of travelers with our hallowed backpacks.
In the recent Spring Festival migration, almost all of China hit the road. I was with them last year, and my backpack came along for the ride. But to my surprise, many Chinese travelers did not carry backpacks. If I ran into another Westerner, I could be sure to see a backpack bobbing behind. Big backpacks are for the long haul, which means a life compressed and departmentalised; all the daily necessities are pared down, or in some cases, simply created in smaller sizes. Backpacks, then, seem to be the obvious choice for those far away from ‘home’; It’s home in a bag. But for some reason, this is not the case for most Chinese travelers.
Perhaps it’s because there’s such a variety of luggage in China. Sure, students and the new breed of Chinese backpackers may well opt for a backpack, but more popular are the large rolling suitcases, or trolleys, onto which women perch purses whilst waiting for which ever mode of transport they are using that day. Then you’ve got the ever popular (and cheap) checked plastic bags into which God knows what is crammed, and - my personal favorite - the huge paint buckets that doubleup as seats when none are available. On top of all this you’ve also got the impressive variety of bags used to simply transport food to contend with. I’ve seen rice sacks, carpet bags, crab boxes, vegetable sacks – you name it, the Chinese will haul it. But seriously guys: what’s wrong with the reliable and convenient backpack? China’s reluctance to embrace this universally loved travel item has been a mystery for me ever since I came to China. What is it about the backpack? Why does it seem to be more of a Western thing? And, of course, why do so many travelers insist on rolling suitcases when there are so many stairs to climb? In the end, I suppose it’s a mystery I won’t lose any sleep over. I mean, after all, whatever bag you decide to use, regardless of how inconvenient it looks, the intent is the same: to carry our lives with us for a while whilst on the road, and, of course, to remove with care once home.